The ear can often be a neglected feature, as it doesn't move, and is away from the focal area at the front of the face. This often results in ears that look 'flat', bringing down the overall strength of the drawing.
Ears also play a role in judging proportion, particularly in profile views, where they have a habit of drifting forwards towards the other features. This leads to the head being drawn too small, a common issue in portrait drawing.
(Main image: Adolph Menzel - 'Old man with head turned away')
Placement of the Ears
Like the other features, it is helpful to place the ears in context of the other features of the face.
(Caption: Facial proportions in front and profile views)
Conveniently, the ears fit well into the technique of dividing the face into thirds, where space is left above the hairline, and the rest of the face is broken into three sections, at the eyebrows, base of the nose and chin. The ears sit in the middle section, roughly being equal to the distance between the eyebrows and base of the nose, but are very sensitive to tilts in the head – if the head tilts, they will sit lower or higher on the head relative to these features.
As with all proportion layouts, there are exceptions, as some people will have smaller ears, and others will have larger ears.
The tricky part is placing the ear far enough from the face in a profile view. To check this, measure the distance from the top corner of the eye down to the bottom of the chin. Rotate this distance at ninety degrees, and with any luck, it should roughly line up to the back of the ear. Even if the profile isn't at a perfect angle, it is still a useful comparison.
Structure of the Ears
Like other features, I find it easiest to simplify the ear into a basic volume before getting into the details. The above diagram shows the ear being reduced to a flattened cylinder (or biscuit shape) and an angled bowl. The cylinder form is an important reminder that the outside of the ear has a thickness.
From most angles we don't see the bowl part, but it is important for understanding how the ear angles forwards on the head. In frontal views we see the ear at an angle rather than edge on. We can see the bowl shape from behind, where it sits under the outermost rim of the ear.
(Cartilage structures of the ear, from the front and side angles)
As we work down to the smaller details, we need to look at the forms of the ear:
1. Helix (C)
2. Antihelix (Y)
3. Tragus (s)
One approach I took to learning these was to associate them to letters, and go through 'upper case C', 'Y', and 'lower case s' as I drew the ear. Most of these forms are very rounded – like undulations – so look for how they merge into each other. The only strong edge here is the rim of the helix as it crosses over the antihelix, before they merge together further down the ear.
(Rear view of the ear, where we can see that the outside of the ear is not flat, but has an S-curve to it)
(The earlobe is a simple, round soft form. It comes in two versions – attached and unattached. Keep an eye out for this variation, as it helps with capturing likeness!)
Putting It Together: Drawing the Ear
Drawing good ears tends to involve the tying together of ideas about form and tone.
(Different ways of expressing form (Left to right): Francesco de' Rossi, Nicolai Fechin, Rembrandt)
Two key drawing ideas to help show dimensionality are overlap and tonal transitions. We can see overlaps more clearly in frontal views of the ear, such as the Rembrandt example, where the helix overlaps the antihelix at the top of the ear, before twisting behind it. Tonal transitions, such as in the Rossi example, help show the undulating volumes more clearly in side views, and reduce the need for line work.
(Shadow shapes help simplify the ear whilst describing its angle (Left to right): Agostino Carracci, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Tiepolo)
Shadow shapes are useful if the ear is small in your image, such as when you are drawing the whole figure. Watteau's ear has simple shadow shapes placed either side of the anti-helix, helping to indicate the main structures of the ear. If lighting permits it, try to fuse your shadows, such as in the Tiepolo example, where the cast shadow creates a contour over the anti-helix. Try to find the contour of the shadows, rather then vaguely indicating them – the Carracci example shows that even complex angles can be implied.
(Small details can imply a lot about the structure of the ear (Left to right): Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Valentin Serov, Henri Fantin-Latour)
In drawings where the ears are either very small, or perhaps with poses that only show a small part of the ear, you often have to imply the ear and leave it at that. Implied details can be very small, such as the rim of the helix created with a tiny line of highlight in Piazetta's drawing.
In Henri Fantin-Latour's drawing, the lines follow the spiral rhythm of the ear, but are incredibly faint, the reduced contrast ensuring it doesn't attract attention. Simplifying the ear is a common strategy to keep attention on the eyes, but indicate visual information carefully – for instance, Serov used a combination of overlaps for the tragus, and a shadow cast over the anti-helix to indicate the ear.
Over to You
One of the most important things to practise with ears is how their appearance changes with angle. There is no movement to capture here, but the complex forms of the ear can be much better understood when drawn from a variety of angles.